By CONOR NICHOLL
RANSOM – Ransom-Western Plains athletic director Dana Shay stood on the Bobcats’ sideline a few minutes before the conclusion of last Friday afternoon’s contest against Cunningham. Shay, a 1976 Ransom High School graduate, is in her 41st year of teaching in the area.
Shay wore a big smile when she looked at the scene in front of her. The stands and grassy areas on the home side were full of fans, and the public announcer called out each play. Earlier in the day, the school had a lively pep rally.
Western Plains co-ops in team sports with Healy and uses the WPH designation for athletics. The five-member cheerleaders in front of the main stands had three from Western Plains and two from Healy. The band, most under shade coverings because of the mid-90s heat, played throughout the contest.
Shay busied herself with various athletic director tasks, including talking with the girls in Homecoming dresses for the post-game crowning.
Football was back in Western Plains for the first time since 2019.
“This is like one of the best things that could happen to your school,” Shay said. “We get a bunch of boys together, and you get some good leadership there, and they start to get some success out here. The community gets excited, the school gets excited. I mean, it’s not all about the boys. The girls walk the walk, too. But this is one of the most positive things.”
A few minutes later, WPH, with four foreign exchange students on a 12-player roster, capped a 52-37 victory versus Cunningham. The game officially didn’t count.
Western Plains used its full roster, which has five seniors: running back Eddy Malicovsky, Mike Hayes, Wade Wason, Darren Flax and Konrad Sentek. Just three Bobcats – linemen Wason, Flax and Sentek – had played football before this year.
Malicovsky is from the Czech Republic. The other three foreign students are from Kyrgyzstan, Spain and Germany.
Cunningham played the contest as a JV game and didn’t play its lone senior, Isaiah Reed, nor standouts such as junior end Lane Halderson.
For the Bobcats, though, that mattered little. Western Plains hadn’t won a football game since 2013, when Shay’s son was still in school.
The Bobcats won a home contest for the first time since a season-opening 38-0 victory against Triplains-Brewster on Aug. 31, 2012 – more than nine years ago. WP didn’t know they were going to have a 2021 team until around three weeks before school started.
A few minutes after Shay observed the scene, the game ended. Sophomore running back Caleb Weeks hugged freshman Noah Roemer. Flax raised both arms in celebration on the sideline and thought of his brother, Jayme, in U.S. Army Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Then, he walked over and hugged Weeks. Flax, Weeks and Sentek walked onto the field together.
“I am just super excited to tell him that I got first win of high school,” Flax said.
Head coach Joe Spangler gathered the team on the field and told them in the huddle to “Enjoy the taste.” Western Plains took a team photo.
As the squad then came off the field, Spangler turned to the band, the stands and fanbase, all cheering loudly. He said “it feels good.” Then, Spangler grew emotional and his voice quivered.
“We’ve got our whole family,” Spangler said, alluding to the townspeople.
A couple of minutes later, the Bobcats had its Homecoming royalty ceremony, a staple of school and community pride. Flax earned Homecoming King.
“This was my first win of high school, so it feels pretty good,” Flax said. “Especially actually getting able to play a senior year, not knowing if we were going to. It was so nice. Everybody was so excited to play, even the kids who aren’t from America are just so excited, and that made me so happy.”
Flax was aware of the school’s recent history.
At halftime, Western Plains led 13-6 after a scoreless second quarter. During the intermission, Flax gave a talk that helped lead the Bobcats to a memorable day. Spangler choked back emotions when he recounted Flax’s words.
“I just told all the guys, that this was the best football team we have had since my eighth-grade year when football was resurrected,” Flax said.
WP draws from Ransom, which has a population of 294, and Bazine with 340. Healy has 223. Healy is 38 miles west of Ransom on KS-4. Healy is the state’s smallest school with 10 students, per KSHSAA statistics. Western Plains is the 11th smallest with 30 students.
Shay remembered the football field hosting 11-man games when she attended high school, and then later eight-man games. Now, it’s six-man. Ransom and Bazine consolidated just over 15 years as Western Plains. Bazine has the junior high school.
“I didn’t know we were going to have all these exchange students,” Spangler said. “And they stepped up and said, ‘Hey, coach, I want to play football. Never played before.”
Western Plains had to forfeit last year because of lack of numbers. Two years ago, WP went 0-7 under Spangler and played just six on-field games. The Bobcats scored 51 total points in the year. In ’18, the Bobcats again posted a 0-7 mark, according to KPreps, and scored 14 points during the fall. WP had just five on-field games.
An 0-7 season also occurred in ’17 with 19 total points. 2016 didn’t yield a season, and ’15 had one game, a 72-22 loss to Weskan on Sept. 18. Western Plains didn’t have a football season either in ’14. The last win came in a 1-8 season in ’13 when WP beat Wilson, 60-54, on the road in Week 5.
In 2012, Western Plains was 2-7 with the 38-0 season-opening victory versus Triplains-Brewster and a 52-20 road win against Palco on Sept. 21, per MaxPreps archives.
On Friday, Western Plains never trailed in a contest that featured more than 15 penalties and three kickoff returns for touchdowns. Weeks finished with eight carries for 150 yards and three touchdowns. Weeks, from an ingrained family in the community, has significantly grown physically from his freshman year.
“Great group,” Spangler said. “Just such a turn from where we have been the last two years with such a positive group of men that want to get better, and I am just super proud to be a part of that.”
Malicovsky, who had played recreationally with his friends in the Czech Republic, was arguably the game’s best player with 18 carries for 205 yards and four scores. Malicovsky has watched some NFL and even noticed the celebratory ball spiking after touchdowns. He is known for asking questions and learning. Malicovsky had even queried Spangler on whether he could spike the ball in high school.
“He ran well,” Spangler said. “And our line, they dug in. And those were our three seniors up front, and they showed. Those were our three experienced players, and they helped us.”
Cunningham freshman Dagim Reed, after an impressive summer at an EPIC football camp, had more than 150 kick return yards, including a score. He rushed for a pair of TD and gained nearly 200 rushing yards.
In 2019, Cunningham, with longtime coach Lance McGuire, re-started its own football team for the first time in four years. This year, the Wildcats are strong contenders for the six-man title and played Centre in an official game Monday. Cunningham won 55-6.
“Six-man bent over backwards for us,” McGuire said. “And for me, it was a no-brainer. They wanted to play JV, and we said we can do that. So I just didn’t suit everybody up, and they get to have a Homecoming on a Friday night, and that’s something that, if you don’t have it you miss it. And it’s everybody. It’s moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas.”
Shay gave significant credit to Spangler for working with the team’s nucleus with high school and junior high, even after 2020 was cancelled.
A 2021 football season was tenuous as the summer progressed. In late summer, Western Plains had a football camp. Flax said “around 11” showed up. Shay said WPH was “fortunate” with a family that moved in that had some boys.
Western Plains hired a teacher who has a boy. Plus, the four foreign exchange students immensely helped. Shay said WP superintendent/principal Jeff Jones has been “really instrumental” in getting foreign exchange students.
“Gave us all hope,” Flax said.
Flax said the foreign exchange students picked up football. Spangler called the team a “fun group.”
“It was actually pretty easy, believe it or not,” Flax said. “Most of them caught on pretty quickly.”
Western Plains participated in a jamboree. They are expected to play a five-game schedule with no postseason. Shay said the schedule will be Golden Plains, Northern Valley, Tribune-Greeley County and possibly Centre in a neutral site later in the season. Centre started the season as KSHSAA eight-man and has dropped to six-man.
Six-man has 14 official teams this year as the classification continues to grow. Several others, including Centre and Peabody-Burns, could drop down when new classes come out later this year.
Twenty-four teams are required to become a KSHSAA sport.
“I have heard there is a lot of interest,” Shay said.
WP likely could have won several games in an official season, though the school elected not to, after the 2020 forfeit, the uncertainty of the fall and the second year of a two-year football cycle. As of now, WP is referring to all its games as JV contests and could pick up one varsity game. Regardless of status, the Bobcats are back playing.
“We actually gave up our spot in the regular six-man schedule a year ago,” Shay said. “We gave it up for one year not knowing we were going to have this influx of young gentleman, and we really didn’t know. We didn’t want to have to do what we did last year, which was start and then stop, because that is hard on the whole (six-man) association. Everybody has to adjust then.”